What do Californians get in exchange for ‘feeding the world’?

Mr. Michelena, a West Side grower, writes a column for the Modesto Bee lamenting that Californians have abandoned the vision of “feeding the world.”  He ties that vision back to JFK, but I have never heard a coherent argument for why California should feed the world.  Why should California exhaust her limited natural resources to meet a relatively infinite demand?  This is before my time, but perhaps JFK’s motivations were altruism and the optimism of the 1950s.  (I find myself resentful of Eastern politicians who view western resources as trading chips, even for noble things.)

Even with the best of motivations, is there any limit to how far California should draw down her waters to feed the world?  Here are possible bookends: California feeds only herself, on perhaps a million acres of irrigated lands (about 3.5MAF/year), an amount that the natural environment could readily provide.  At the other bookend, California could attempt to meet world food demand; we could divert every river, drain our aquifers below the levels that are cost-efficient to pump, drain every dam every year, pay the increasing costs of generating new pieces of water that are clean enough to farm with.  Which end of the spectrum are we closer to now, with ag water consuming about 30MAF/year?  If we continue or expand the irrigated acreage to feed the world, when does each incremental unit of water diverted cost us something increasingly precious, like a creek or a species?  Somewhere on that spectrum of water diverted for agriculture, there must be a point where the trade-off in natural resources gets too high.  Mr. Michelena’s column is part of our larger conversation about where that line should be.  I personally believe we passed that line more than two decades ago.

But I have more questions about this concept, that California should feed the world.  We could use our excellent soils and abundant sunshine and limited water to feed the world.  But what will the world give us in exchange for that?  In exchange, will they send us cold rivers?  Or historic salmon runs, that we can witness and be thrilled for?  Will they send us millions of live smelt, to swim in our estuaries or even to be bait on our fishhooks?  Will they give us swimming holes in granite boulders?  No, they can’t do that.  In exchange for food, other places will give us money.  Money is nicely useful, although it cannot recreate the things we lose by diverting rivers.  Worse, this exchange takes a communal, public resource that almost all Californians get the benefit of (water in rivers, aquifers, estuaries) and turns it into a private resource that few (several thousand farmers) get the benefit of.

And here it is time to talk about how ugly this distribution of money has become.  The next economic argument is that those farmers move that money through the farm economy out to other Californians, who will be able to buy things they want more than the rivers they lost.  That is not true of all farming in the state.  It is true of some farmers, in some local economies.  But for most of the acreage in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, the money from ‘feeding the world’ becomes concentrated among the already rich.  The Resnicks are the first among those, but there are many millionaires alongside them.  Today, with the way that wealth and farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is currently distributed, “feeding the world” means turning rivers and canyons and fish that all Californians could visit into additional wealth for the already wealthy.  As it now stands, that doesn’t even mean wealth percolating through a local farm economy; it means that all Californians get back for the waters they lost is whatever philanthropy those wealthy few happen to pursue.  That may be a worthwhile deal for Angelenos who like art.  But most other Californians might choose differently, and I’d like the choice to be explicit.



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I’m going to regret this, I am sure of it.

The way wealth is accumulating through farming on the west and south San Joaquin Valley is not new.  The recent almond and pistachio profits are astonishing and call new attention to that wealth.  But even with the new populism built on the Occupy and Sanders’ movements, I still don’t see mainstream think tanks willing to directly address it.  I see Delta advocates pointing it out, because it helps their advocacy.  I see WaterFix proponents dancing around the issue.  (On Michael Krasny’s show the caller asks, what about unsustainable farming in Kern County?  Secretary Laird answers by talking about Santa Clara.)  But I have not seen mainstream environmentalists (who have worked for years on environmental justice) publically make a value judgment along these lines.

For example, Dr. Gleick’s recent editorial:

 In California, even in an average rainfall year, demand outstrips supply by several million acre-feet. There is no polite way to say it: The unsustainable use of groundwater and the excessive diversion of water from our rivers is stealing from our children and grandchildren in order to satisfy today’s wasteful demands.

The unsustainable use of groundwater by whom, Dr. Gleick?  By the birds of the sky?  By the beasts of the field?  No.  Are all unsustainable uses of groundwater and excessive diversions morally the same?   Can we get greater societal leverage by focusing on a few egregious ones?  If they are not morally the same, what values would you use to rank them?  By some combination of the damage done by the extraction and the virtue of the wealth gained in return?  And if you would use values to rank them, then why not make public explicit value judgments about the observable extreme end of the spectrum*?

Or this, from Capitol Weekly’s description of Mr. Baldassare and the PPIC:

 Calm, authoritative, far-ranging, impartial and always accurate, the PPIC is invaluable

Oh no no no.  I can only speak to PPIC’s water coverage, but it is far from impartial.  The PPIC’s water coverage is deeply saturated with conventional economic thought, so much that it is not even self-aware of the extent of that influence. With wealth accumulation based on water use as skewed as it is now, that conventional economic thought is dangerously at odds with cultural and values-based judgments about water uses.

Continue reading


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Recommendations for the incoming presidential administration.

Friends, you will be appalled to know that influential people are reading blogs, including this one.  Worse, one of them wants my thoughts on what to recommend to the incoming presidential administration.  I’ll propose some things, and I would love to hear from you as well.

If you have recommendations for the next administration, please leave them in the comments.  To make this constructive, please follow this format.

  • No advocacy comments on any of the following topics: the Delta, the tunnels, new surface storage, the ESA, or almonds.  Those debates are well fleshed out; re-reading them would bore me.
  • Present your recommendations as purpose, then method, with links if you got ’em.  (i.e. To re-fill groundwater aquifers, support research and pilot projects for on-farm recharge.)  If you aren’t sure how to insert links, just cut and paste them.  I’ll go back into the comments and anchor them to text.

Here are my first few thoughts, to inspire you:

  • To support SGMA as it gets up and running, issue planning grants to the new GSAs (short term action).
  • To improve agricultural water use efficiency, develop remote sensing capacity for irrigation distribution uniformity.  Frankly, I’d love for the agencies to have the staff, equipment and capacity to be doing their own remote sensing of all of California’s farmland, made publicly available.   If we were going to be doing stuff like this, I bet the forestry agencies would have suggestions for useful remote sensing.  We don’t have to cede this field to the private sector.  Weekly remote sensing images could be publicly provided infrastructure, like CIMIS.
  • To improve water holding capacity and carbon sequestration, fund programs that improve soil tilth.
  • To increase urban water use efficiency, develop a program for municipal-level leak detection.  I have heard that cities have a hard time paying for leak detection.

OK friends.  Please leave constructive, do-able ideas for what the feds can do in the next administration.  Why, then what, with links to details.



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Roughly 480cfs.

NMFS and USFWS might have an easier time keeping the Sacramento river cool for salmon if Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District weren’t losing 170,000 acre-feet of water every summer from their unlined canals and over-irrigation. (Slide 13).


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I wonder if Mr. Amaral rated a similar loan.

For some reason, I find myself called to write about Westlands Water District today.  You may have seen that in 2007 WWD gave a former deputy manager a personal loan of $1.4M at 0.84%, and hasn’t seen the need to be repaid for that loan yet.  One and a half million dollars would buy a whole lot of house in Cantua Creek City or Three Rocks, although we know that Mr. Peltier, gritty man of agriculture, chose to buy a lot of house in Walnut Grove instead.  It doesn’t appear that WWD properly disclosed the loan, but we’re used to WWD defying disclosure rules.  So we will skip over petty, small-minded, literalist discussions of fraud, perjury, and fiduciary misbehavior.  Why linger on ugly details?  Instead, let’s talk about money, power and dominance.

NOTE:  For the discussion below, I am talking about public perception within the water field.  I am not an insider at any of the districts I’m about to discuss.  I don’t know any of the managers or staff personally; I haven’t been introduced to them, even.  I am asserting what I believe to be the mainstream opinion of water professionals.

Westlands is widely described as “powerful”.  Their managers worked at high levels in George Bush’s administration; when the Bush administration ended, WWD was there to hire all the influence it could.  Westlands maintains a stable of lobbyists, and funds faux-grass roots public information campaigns.  Westlands makes extensive political donations.  Their ability to be heard in Washington is reflected in the unfortunate deal Pres. Obama’s Interior Department made.

But when I look at that list, the thought that keeps coming back to me is that Westlands Water District is bleeding money.  For all of that talk of power, they have to pay and pay and pay to maintain it.  They aren’t buying particularly good power, either.  Their purchases aren’t buying any popular support, good press, any diversity of friendships, good access to Gov. Brown’s administration.  It isn’t buying them the prudent anonymity of the other west side districts that never show up in the press.  Their power isn’t winning them state grants or other incoming money.  They just pay out the ass for their manager dudes to talk to like-minded political dudes in Washington.

I want to contrast that with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.  A check tells me that they do hire lobbyists, but I’ve never heard of SAWPA being described as inherently powerful.  What I do know about them is that they rake in money.  They get grants.  They are named recipients in (attempted) bond measures.  They win awards. So which is the powerful agency here?  The widely disliked one that bleeds money for political access?  Or the friendly one that sweetly and relentlessly brings in money?

Which brings me to the approaches used by the two agencies.  Westlands Water District is going for dominance.  They have chosen to buy the influence to force their agenda through in political capitols.  They are also, frankly, powerful male assholes talking to other powerful male assholes.  When I’ve seen them at conferences, they schmooze with the big boys.  SAWPA’s approach is collaboration, written all over their front page.  I haven’t participated in their processes, so I can’t tell you how deep that runs.  But when I see their managers at conferences, they talk to all comers.  Scared young brown student at their first conference?  They’re welcoming.  They naturally catch up with their (male and female) friends and colleagues from over the years.  By all appearances, they are friendly and broadly engaged.  Which means that when politics is giving out money, they don’t have to buy as much access or fake public support.

Westlands WD’s power is naturally limited to the total political power of like-minded politicians, which ebbs and flows and can be blocked by opposing political groups.  It is also amazingly expensive.  Mr. Peltier’s loan alone cost Westlands’ farmers about $2.5/irrigated acre in 2007.  The power of a collaborative approach is limited by the friends the members of SAWPA can make, and it brings in money.  If Westlands stops buying access, what other kinds of power would it have left?  If SAWPA stopped paying lobbyists, what other kinds of power would it have left?


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Trump’s drought comments.

Perhaps you have heard that Mr. Trump discussed our water issues at a rally in Fresno.  His policy statements change by the moment, but I do like them as his barometer for what the crowd wants to hear.  He has a genius for reducing any issue down to the purest synthesis of what his crowd wants to hear.  Before he gets back to talking about himself, Mr. Trump says of the drought:

We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous. Where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.
And I just met with a lot of the farmers, who are great people, and they’re saying we don’t even understand it, they don’t understand it, nobody understands it. And I’ve heard this from other friends of mine in California where they have farms up here and they don’t get water.
I said, oh, that’s too bad, is it a drought? “No, we have plenty of water” and I said well what’s wrong and they said well we shove it out to sea. And I said why? And nobody even knows why and the environmentalists don’t know why. Now they’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish. But…
No, no think of it. So nobody even knows why. And by the way the environmentalists don’t know why.   [emphasis added]

Mr. Trump’s assessment of what will please his crowd in Fresno is an assertion that the policies that are guiding State drought management are beyond reason, beyond understanding, unknown even to the practitioners of these policies.  These words reassure his crowd that it is OK that they don’t understand, because State water management is objectively not understandable.  So what is it that they don’t understand?

One possibility is that Mr. Trump’s receptive audience doesn’t understand how we arrived at pumping restrictions.  I get that.  I do.  The chain of events goes: loss of habitat and bottleneck at the pumps => endangered species listing for smelt => biological opinions => upheld by courts and the National Academy of Science review => we can only pump when there aren’t any smelt near the pumps.  That isn’t straightforward.  It has developed over years; I wouldn’t expect anyone who isn’t a water junkie to have kept track. However, this is not beyond any understanding; professionals in the field understand it.  Mr. Trump might mean, ‘it can’t be explained to me in thirty seconds’, which is not the same thing as ‘no one knows why’.  It isn’t beyond reason, either.  All the steps in the political processes and scientific analyses have all been incremental and upheld by our agreed upon public governance methods.

It is more likely that what Mr. Trump is reassuring his audience is that the values that guide recent water management are inexplicable.  That valuing a three-inch fish is inherently unreasonable, so much so that even environmentalists “don’t know why”.  (Maybe they meant to value some big charismatic fish and got accidently carried away!!  It could happen!)   The invaluable Mr. Fitchette expounds on a similar view, that different underlying values are plain wrong.

Now Mr. Trump is a demagogue and a good one.  But the thing that interests me is that while he gets cheers from saying that “no one knows” why the farm sector hasn’t gotten a full water allotment, his own crowd isn’t with him when he says “there is no drought.”  Watch these 16 seconds.  The crowd doesn’t applaud.  The man behinds him looks up sharply, startled.  The locals know; they can see the Sierras from their homes.  They saw no snowpack last winter.  They know the hills didn’t green over winter. They may enjoy being pandered to for an evening, but they don’t agree when he contradicts the facts they experienced.  I don’t envy them their cognitive dissonance.


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Now we know.

Had the State taken Integrated Regional Water Management as seriously as it is now taking groundwater sustainability, it would have required the establishment of “Regions” with powers and authorities like the new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. Now that I see a serious effort, I am confirmed in my belief that IRWM wasn’t one.


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